The Art of Self-Defense

Gun control on trial


Tom Palmer, a writer and researcher at the Cato Institute, believes he owes his life to a 9-mm semiautomatic.

One evening in the early 1980s, he and a male friend were walking through a Los Angeles neighborhood when a group of young men started yelling at them. "They decided they didn't like faggots walking through their neighborhood," says Palmer, "and threatened to beat and kill us."

Facing 19 or 20 guys, Palmer and his friend took off running. The men pursued them, so when Palmer got under the light of a street lamp, he quickly pulled out the gun he was carrying in his backpack. His mother, worried that such a situation would someday arise, had given him the weapon.

Fortunately, this turned out to be one of those life-and-death situations that had not only a happy ending but a punch line. "When I took out the gun," Palmer recalls, "the gang leader's first words were, 'Have you got a permit for that?'"

The gang quickly backed off, and Palmer never had to fire his weapon.

Today, Palmer lives in Washington, D.C., which boasts some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. That's why he's become one of five plaintiffs in a lawsuit to be filed in early 2003 in a federal district court. Along with three D.C. attorneys, the plaintiffs will argue that district residents have a constitutional right to keep arms in their homes.

D.C. effectively bans the private possession of handguns. You can keep a shotgun or rifle in your home, but it has to be unloaded and disassembled. "What good is that when you're faced with an intruder?" asks Palmer.

Robert Levy, a senior fellow at Cato, is one of the attorneys working on the case. Although Levy, Palmer, and a second attorney, Gene Healy, all work at Cato, Levy stresses that the lawsuit is a personal project. "Cato doesn't litigate," he says. The third attorney, Clark Neily, works at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm.

Does the lawsuit have a fighting chance? Palmer is optimistic, "given that in D.C. it's the Department of Justice that prosecutes felonies, and John Ashcroft has defended the right to carry a weapon as an individual right." But in several 2002 cases, D.C. Superior Court judges rejected that argument, citing a 15-year-old D.C. Court of Appeals decision upholding the ban.